THE YEAR IS 1859 and the place is the tropical island of Zanzibar, the home of the dying remnants of the African slave trade. In the palace, gecko lizards scamper across the ceiling of an ornate private audience chamber as the Sultan reclines on a divan chatting with his good friend, Rory Frost, an English adventurer, sea captain, blackguard and sometime slave-trader and gunrunner.

Frost, reflecting the mannered cynicism of a character in a Gore Vidal novel, is instructing the Sultan on the "cramping hideousness of life in the so-called 'civilized West.'" His voice thick from too much perfumed brandy, Frost predicts, "someday someone is going to see that you get the blessings of Progress, Western style, whether you want it or not. And if you don't want it you'll get it crammed down your throat with a rifle butt."

This passage drawn from her new novel, Trade Wind, helps explain the unique genius of the English writer M. M. Kaye. Her theme is, as always, the collision between western values and native culture in remote corners of the world in the mid-19th century. But Kaye recognizes all the moral ambiguities raised by this titanic clash of alien cultures. Her narrative indicts hypocrisy, intolerance and the inability of many westerners to appreciate or understand local customs. But she carefully avoids blanket indictments or the shrill rhetoric of anti-colonialism.

For those who have read her earlier novels, particularly The Far Pavilions , an epic portrayal of colonial India, it is unnecessary to emphasize her complex moral stance. But it is important to sing the praises of M. M. Kaye for the type of reader, such as myself, who is normally put off by anything resembling genre fiction -- particularly since the jacket copy for Trade Wind describes it as a "splendid tale of love and death in an exotic locale."

Trade Wind is, indeed, an incongruous love story linking Rory Frost with Hero Athena Hollis, a plucky, 21-year-old right-thinking abolitionist prig from Massachusetts who sails to Zanzibar determined to end the slave trade in the Sultan's domains. There is death in many forms, particularly an emotionally wrenching description of a cholera epidemic. There are few more exotic locales than Zanzibar and Kaye is painstaking in her effort to describe every nook and cranny of this small island.

But Trade Wind transcends such easy labels as romance or exotic historial novel. It is a sophisticated treat for those traditional readers who favor good writing, subtle character development, clever plotting and a slightly ironic narrative tone.

I am hesitant to give a plot summary of Trade Wind because I fear that a linear exposition of the twists and turns of the story can easily reduce the novel to parody. There will be smiles when I reveal that Hero Hollis meets Rory Frost, the slave-trader with a heart of gold, when she is washed overboard from the ship that is carrying her to Zanzibar and is found clinging to the rigging of Frost's sloop, the Virago. Or that later Rory abducts Hero as irrational retribution for the murder of his beloved concubine, Zorah, whom he once bought "for a few shillings and a bolt of striped calico."

Trade Wind is the story of Hero Hollis' maturity as she learns that reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and attending a few abolitionist lectures has not prepared her for the realities of Zanzibar. Life is too complex to fit into her moral cubbyholes. With more zeal than good sense, Hero becomes the innocent pawn in of French colonial interests as she takes an active part in triggering a bloody rebellion by the Sultan's brother. Her efforts to free individual slaves are comically ineffectual. Slowly she comes to chafe at the rigidity and the hypocrisy of the social mores of the small resident western community on the island. Even after her chastity has been brutally violated, Hero comes to remember fondly "a man's hard body."

Trade Wind was originally published in abbreviated form almost 20 years ago and is as much a reissue as a new novel. This tangled publishing history helps explain why in many ways it is not as mature or complex a novel as The Far Pavilions . Zanzibar, for all its interest as a center for slave-trading, does not provide M. M. Kaye with anything resembling the vast canvas of colonial India. The Sultan and his court generally lack the complexity of the European characters in the novel. Even a few of the Europeans come across as one-dimensional windup toys, particularly the English naval officer whose mission is to prevent native dhows loaded with slaves from reaching Zanzibar.

But these are quibbles. The novel is carefully researched and much of the action is based on actual events; even unlikely occurrences as a pirate attack on the European enclave and the elopement of the Sultan's half-sister with a German businessman are historically accurate. Trade Wind is a satisfying novel which provides enough action even for sensibilities jaded by television without leaving the bitter aftertaste that comes with long hours of intellectual slumming. Only when compared to the exceedingly high standards set by The Far Pavilions does Trade Wind fall short.